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Mexico’s Constitution and Its Square, the Zócalo

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Today, I return to blogging for In Custodia Legis after a considerable hiatus.  That gap came from being involved in other projects, among these the Library of Congress Leadership Development Program and the coordination of the Library’s recent Celebration of Mexico and tribute to the Living Legend Award Winner, Dr. Miguel LeónPortilla.

In keeping with Mexican and Spanish subjects, today is the first Monday of February; so, it is a day established by the federal government of Mexico to commemorate The Anniversary of the Mexican Constitution.  Article 74 of the Federal Labor Law of Mexico provides that the first Monday of February shall be a day of rest in commemoration of the 5th of February, which is the anniversary of the promulgation of both the Constitutions of 1857 and of 1917.  Provisions on flag protocol for the observance of this day can be found in the Law Concerning the Coat of Arms, the Flag and the National Anthem.

Now, in the past I have written about “The History of the Mexican Constitution“; and another colleague and I have written about the Constitution of Cádiz and its ties to the Mexican Constitution.  Today, I would like to draw your attention to Mexico’s Constitution Square or Plaza de la Constitución, which is also known as the Zócalo.  The Zócalo is located in the Historical Center of Mexico City.

During the Viceregal Period of Mexico, when it was New Spain, this square was called Plaza de Armas or Arms Square.  Like many Latin cities throughout the world, the town square or forum, in terms of Vitruvius, has always been the center of administration and public assembly for municipalities and cities.  Some of the prescriptive aspects concerning town squares in Mexico are covered in the Laws of Burgos.

Zócalo from the Latin soccŭlus, which in architectural terms refers to the plinth, is a fundamental piece of a larger structure.  In the case of Mexico it was the base set in 1844 upon which a monument, in honor of its independence, was to be erected–as you can see in the following sketches.

Image courtesy of the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA, Mexico)


zocalo 2
Image courtesy of the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA, Mexico)

However, those of you who have been to Mexico City, have probably seen that there is no such monument.  Instead, where the plinth would have been situated, today you can see the Mexican flag.  Still, as language is “open, dynamic, energetic, constantly evolving and personal” (Elana Shohamy, Language Policy Hidden Agendas and New Approaches, p. 5), the mere prescriptive meaning of an architectural base evolved into what is now understood, in Mexico, as a larger public area.

Image courtesy of the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (CONACULTA, Mexico)

The Mexican Zócalo has held significance as a place of assembly since before the arrival of the Spaniards.  It has also served as a ceremonial setting for the “toma de protesta,” which is similar to the act of taking an oath of office.  However, the operative word is similar.  In Mexico, there is no actual “swearing”; rather, it is a solemn affirmation, which often appears in legal documents as “protesto lo necesario,” and would translate more technically as “I duly affirm.”  (This is a nuance that was highlighted by Dr. Thomas L. West III at a lecture titled “Mexican Civil Procedure for Spanish–>English Translators at the 54th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association.)  I would surmise that (for religious reasons) prior to the Constitution that is in effect, this would not be an appropriate manner of attesting.  To further clarify my speculation:  Mexico (and previously, New Spain) had always established that the official religion of state was Roman Catholic and swearing is prohibited in the Decalogue.  Furthermore, with the present Constitution there is also a very clear separation of church and state. 

A curious note about the Mexican Constitution and one that is relevant to the Law Library’s recent celebration of Human Rights:  The Mexican Constitution is the first modern constitution to provide for social rights.  I say modern because in Spain, during the 15th century, legislation was issued by Ferdinand of Aragon–the Laws of Burgos or the Royal Ordinances for the Good Governance and Treatment of the Indians–with elements of social rights.  In fact, as it was promulgated in 1917, it predates other constitutions with social rights, like the Russian Constitution of 1918 and the Weimar Constitution of 1919.

As far as the significance of the date, I can only speculate that the 5th of February–the name of one of the streets where the square is presently located–alludes to the Siege of Cádiz and, consequently, to the Constitution of Cádiz.  And, as it has been mentioned, the Constitution of Cádiz is the predecessor  to the Mexican Constitutions.   (But if any of you out there knows better, please feel free to share.)

Today, we join our neighbors to the south in commemorating their Constitution.

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